Review – Divorcing a Real Witch

Rajchel, Diana. Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the people that used to love them. Moon Books, 2014. 190 pages.

Diana Rajchel takes a very clear stand that divorce is a life passage that some people go through which involves pain and grief that, like other life passages, lead to an opportunity for renewal. Within this approach, her work is intended as a resource for those going through divorce or its after effects. She shares personal reflection, tries to position divorce within a Wiccan worldview, and offers healing methods for coping with divorce and the accompanying changes through spiritual techniques.

She begins with a discussion of divorce, why people might choose to divorce, especially women, and how divorce fits into a Wiccan worldview, system of ethics, and spiritual practice. This discussion broadens into how divorce is seen in the wider culture, including ways that those who choose to divorce may encounter friction with friends, family, and other relationships. This is not a work to help those trying to make a last-ditch attempt to save a marriage; Rajchel takes divorce as a fact of life – and a fact of the reader’s life. Her view of divorce as a life passage rejects the characterization of “broken homes” and the disproportionate blaming of women that often attach to divorce; she asserts early on that “Divorce is not the fault of a massive failure of character.” (xiii) This nonjudgmental approach is refreshingly direct and appropriately sets the stage for helping readers heal.

Rajchel’s writing is part personal reflection, part handbook, part survey report, and part ritual resource, which makes for an interesting mix. Her discussions of what divorcees might go through is clearly informed by her personal experience, which makes them much more valuable. She has clearly done an immense amount of personal work to process her own experience and be able to discuss the wisdom gained. The resources she has created are aimed squarely at those very personal experiences.

The middle chapters contain most of the resources, which include a number of different rituals, meditations, and other techniques. Rajchel suggests reflections that will shape however the reader chooses to personalize the work, then offers several different variations of a handparting ritual, including versions with one or both members of a couple present, an officiant or not, and more.

Possibly even more valuable are a whole series of guided meditations aimed at dealing with different specific emotional experiences that are likely to arise during and after the process of grieving an ended relationship. Rajchel speaks wisely about the emotional issues that can occur, framing them as a type of grief, and explicitly acknowledging that emotions will recur, change at their own pace, and should not be forced to fit anyone else’s framework or expectations. She also recommends that readers seek additional help such as counseling when needed. With that in mind, her wide variety of meditations and associated techniques are a rich field of resources for processing these emotions in a spiritual perspective.

To balance the personal nature of the experience she brings to her writing, Rajchel does try to get outside her own perspective. She acknowledges same-sex couples, and the differences and difficulties they may face in these situations, and briefly touches on some of the issues that arise when couples with children divorce. In trying to expand her perspective, Rajchel apparently conducted a survey of other Pagans from a number of traditions, but she fails to describe how the survey was created and administered, nor does she describe the overall purpose or conclusions of the survey. The lack of information about this survey is one of the weak points of the work. She cites a few summaries, but mostly uses qualitative and anecdotal reports from within the survey, including some vignettes interspersed with the main text. There are many more of her own personal vignettes, and sometimes I found it difficult to determine which were which.

The other major problem with this book is that the organization and structure are haphazard. Chapter titles reveal their repetitive nature, and while there is an attempt to progress from discussion to rituals to further discussion to conclusions, the lack of an overarching structure makes it unclear why some choices of topic were made and where the reader should turn for a particular topic. On the other hand, the episodic nature of the writing is amenable to a reader who is going through a particularly painful life passage and who may want to pick up the book, scan one part, put it down, and take it up again at a later point. Regardless, the rituals and meditations, as well as the overall perspective on divorce as a life passage from a Wiccan perspective make it a valuable work.

Rajchel expresses her purpose by saying “We must become our own heroes because no myths deal with failed interdependence.” (7) While I might quibble that some myths address irreparable breakdowns in trust and intimate relationships, her overall point is quite true – divorce as we know it is a fact of life, for Pagans as for others, and it is not something for which we have a standard narrative template, mythical or otherwise. It is up to us to shape our own personal and spiritual responses to it in the ways that are best for us. Rajchel’s book provides valuable and important resources for doing that work.

Mabon – The Myth of Progress

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Sabbats originally written in 2011.

Mabon, the autumn equinox, is something of a blank slate. In the Wheel of the Year, the “cross-quarter days” are Celtic fire festivals; the other solar festivals – the solstices and the vernal equinox – are grounded in proto-Germanic cultures. In those Germanic cultures, though, the autumn equinox has no strong history of celebration; it doesn’t even have a distinguishing name. To keep the Wheel of the Year in balance, Gerald Gardner included the autumn equinox, but left most of the details open to interpretation. The name Mabon, drawn from Welsh mythology, came into common use later on, but doesn’t do much to specify the nature of the festival.

As a result, different ways of interpreting the multiple harvest festivals have sprung up. Some groups focus on the Celtic roots of Lunasa and leave the harvest symbolism to Mabon; others describe Lunasa as the start of the harvest and the equinox as its end, and may call the festival Harvest Home instead. [1] Still others describe Lunasa as the grain harvest and Mabon as the fruit harvest. It depends on the group, and the bioregion, and the weather. This multiplicity of interpretations is one of the things I love about Paganism: each open space is fertile soil where multiple myths can take root and flourish simultaneously.

Understanding and relating to Pagan myths has taken practice, though. When I first became Pagan, I used to be confused and sometimes downright irritated when I read tales of deities who didn’t seem very godlike, coming from a monotheistic perspective. I mean, they get drunk, they have fights, and they cheat on their spouses, not always in that order. They’re not exactly the kind of example we’d want to imitate in most cases.

As I grew in my practice and engaged more with the myths and with different kinds of stories, I gradually reached the conclusion that my assumption – that myths are stories about gods whom humans should seek to emulate – was a holdover from my Christian past. In Christianity, religious narratives about Jesus or good Christians are presented as exemplars for followers to emulate. This approach is very god-centered, and when taken to its (il)logical extreme, it can almost erase the adherent by reducing her to a mere reflection of the beatified.

I’ve come to see the older myths as human-centric stories. The gods act like humans – and do they ever! – except that the gods are bigger and stronger, so when they screw up, they royally – or maybe deifically? –  screw up. The myths reflect humans back to themselves, but enlarged. The stories don’t minimize the bad in favor of the good, or vice versa; they magnify all the parts and possibilities, or they add unique features that weren’t present before.

The myths give both storyteller and audience the chance to engage with human stories in an exaggerated setting so that they’re more interesting, more exciting, more dangerous, more tragic and more amazing. Throughout, though, they are fundamentally human stories.

This approach also helps me understand why so many overlapping, contradictory versions of the same myth can co-exist. The myths are no longer central; the teller and audience are, so it is natural for the people to adapt the myths to tell the stories they need to tell. No one is trying to find the single unchanging standard for behavior; the multiplicity of myths encourages us to adapt our responses to the situation, just as the storyteller working on the fly might have to alter the ending to fit the narrative corner she backs herself into. What matters is that the story works, that it’s good enough, that it fits its context.

The most encouraging thing about this approach to the myths, though, is that because we’re telling them, we can change them. They grow with us over time. And that’s important, because my favorite myth is the myth of progress.

Historian Laurence Keeley, in his book on prehistoric warfare, wrote that modern people tend to view prehistory in terms of two competing myths: the myth of the golden age or the myth of progress. [2] The myth of the golden age conceives of the world as continually declining. It leads us to assume that the past was always better than the present – if not in hygiene or life expectancy, then in some in some ineffable but presumably more important characteristics like social structure and morality. The myth of progress supposes the polar opposite: it tells a story of continuous development, usually with technological and social development being used as evidence of the present’s superiority.

It is quite accurate to describe both of these worldviews as myths; as the Slacktiverse’s motto says, it’s usually more complicated than that. Depending on the period and place that a historical narrative tries to describe, and what the narrative’s author views as “good,” it may seem that these myths take turns driving alternating ages of development and decay, or that one is predominant for all the period under consideration, or both, or neither.

For example, the history of Europe in the centuries after the end of the Roman Empire is usually told in accord with the myth of the golden age, while the history of the time around the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is usually presented as progress. Neither of these is entirely true or entirely false, especially depending on who and what the person telling the story considers important. Each framing, though, highlights some aspects and supports some conclusions, while pushing other matters into the background.

For the present moment, I try to make narratives that loosely fit with the myth of progress. I think that trying to tell our own stories as a part of the myth of the golden age is fundamentally discouraging, but trying to tell them as part of the myth of progress is a fundamentally optimistic position which can not only make us feel good but inspire us to do good.

To me, starting from a position that assumes the past was better seems like an invitation to despair; we can’t get back there, after all, and if you think, as I do, that a certain amount of change is inevitable, then we may not even be able to hold on to the fragments of it we retain. The ability to learn and the ability to change are tied up together. An attitude of suspicion about all change seems to me to be inherently resistant to learning, and hence to growth.

The myth of progress, by contrast, is an invitation to hope. We can’t change the past; we have to acknowledge it in all its beauty and grandeur, its cruelty and despair. But with that acknowledgement, we free ourselves to work on what we can change: the present, with an eye towards the future. As Terry Pratchett wrote, if we do a good job of changing our own present, when we get to the future, the present will “turn out to be a past worth having.” [3]

In this way the myth of progress is more than an invitation to hopeful feelings: it is an invitation to hopeful action, to hope and love enacted. The myth of progress, and the mindset that comes with it, help me tell my stories in ways that guide my actions. Because I continue to have hope, I continue to put forth effort to make the world – and its stories – continue to improve.

And although some of the stories we tell are ones we really don’t want to live through, sometimes we tell ourselves stories that we do want to live up to, stories that inspire us to be better than we thought we were. I think America’s founders did that, for example, telling themselves a story about how things might work out much better in a society where religious liberty was guaranteed to all. The ones who found hope in that story were able to convince the ones who wanted to preserve an imaginary golden age of state-sponsored Christianity, and so there are clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibit government establishment of a religion and guarantee free exercise to all.

But even at the time the Constitution was written, the story of free exercise for all religions was not the literal truth; it was in some ways a myth. Native Americans and slaves were not granted the rights the founders proposed, at least in part because they were seen as not really citizens and not fully human. State-sponsored Christian prayer continued in schools until the mid-20th century. Today, the US still lives up to that lofty ideal only imperfectly, but it has made tremendous strides towards making what was once a myth into a reality for more and more people. That gives me hope.

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?


[1] Here I use the modernized Irish spelling for this holiday rather than the “Lughnasadh” spelling most Pagans are used to seeing.

[2] Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1996, p 4-5.

[3] Pratchett, Terry. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper Collins, 2010, p 336.

Lunasa – John Barleycorn

But John Barleycorn proved the stoutest man
Though they did all that they could
So raise up your horn and praise John Barleycorn
And we shall drink his blood
Yes, we shall drink his blood!

– Heather Alexander’s version of old English folk song “John Barleycorn”

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

John Barleycorn is one of my favorite versions of a god archetype that is particularly relevant at this time of year: the god of vegetation who dies and is reborn. There are innumerable versions of the poem and folk song that tell his story, including one by Robert Burns. [1]  The story is a metaphor for the agricultural cycle of barley, and by extension nearly any grain crop, personified in “little Sir John.” [2]

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sabbat at the start of August is called either Lammas or Lughnasadh, and under either name it is a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, and especially the beginning of the grain harvest. The consistent theme at these celebrations is thanksgiving that there is a harvest to be gotten in, and that communities come together to do the hard and vitally necessary work of harvesting. In the Southern Hemisphere, this Sabbat is Imbolc, which is also a festival of change, but in a different way, focusing on poetry and inspiration, and the end of winter, rather than preparing for the coming winter as we in the Northern Hemisphere must do at this time.

Lammas comes from the Old English for loaf-mass, the offering and blessing of the first symbolic loaves made from the newly-reaped grain, representing the whole harvest to come. Lughnasadh is the festival of the Celtic god Lugh; he is said to have instituted the celebration in honor of his foster-mother after her death. [3] As far as we can tell from surviving information, in old Celtic cultures this was a time for communities to gather and engage in games and contests of skill, especially martial skill, but it was also a celebration of the harvest.

The Lughnasadh festival was considered a good time for people to come together in more ways than one. Because the harvest assured people that they could plan for the winter to come, this time of year was appropriate for finalizing all kinds of arrangements, including living situations from renting lodgings to setting up marriages and handfastings. A handfasting, according to some sources, may have been a kind of trial marriage that lasted for “a year and a day” and could be dissolved without prejudice at the end of that time. [4] In a largely agricultural society, the gold of the grain was more important than a gold ring to making it possible for a couple to live together.

The song of John Barleycorn – a story of violence and death – may seem like an odd tune for these festivals of fresh bread and new weddings.  The conflict is resolved when we realize the story is not just about death, but death and rebirth. Little Sir John comes back in many forms, none of which are exactly the same as the life he lost. He is reborn, not resurrected.

John Barleycorn is another face worn by the Green Man, the god of living things that are green and growing, things that live and die and live again, year in and year out, around the Wheel. The Green Man or the vegetation god often appears in art, especially carvings, as a face made of leaves, sometimes with vines and grasses growing from his mouth or flowing as his hair. As I have found common in Paganism, he “speaks in leaves,” that is, in complex symbols without a single, simple allegorical meaning, so there is not just one story but many going on simultaneously as we try to read his story in the leaves and in his songs. [5]

In the song, John Barleycorn, the seed, is planted and buried, by men who are vain enough to assure themselves that he is dead. But because Barleycorn knows that the tomb is also the womb of the earth, he sprouts and begins to grow. As the grain begins to ripen, it is described in some versions as the figure growing a beard. This is a literal description of ripening grain, which grows long thin protrusions called the beard or awns, but it could also be a symbol of puberty, with all the attendant metaphors between sexual and agricultural fertility. In Burns’ version, though, he describes this growth as “pointed spears” that are Barleycorn’s defense, until he ages and becomes weak in autumn. In either telling, Barleycorn’s ripening marks the point that he has become useful to others, and by the same token, it is the time that he is beginning to be ready for his next death.

Then in great detail the story and song describe the cruelties inflicted on Barleycorn, all of which refer to the activities of preparing grain for human use: cutting the stalks, binding the sheaves, loading the grain, threshing, and milling. But here the song departs from the Lammas theme of the importance of bread. Burns’ version gives away the difference by including the step of malting the barley over a fire before it is ground, which makes it ready for brewing beer, which will be the ultimate rebirth of the barley. Some versions insist that Sir John was not only made into the everyday beer, but also into stronger stuff such as uisge beatha, the “water of life,” better known today as whisk(e)y.

The song ends with a verse or two about how everyone partakes of Barleycorn’s reborn “spirit,” pun very much intended. This is why I describe Barleycorn’s process as a rebirth, rather than a resurrection; the parts of the grain that are used, whether for bread or for brewing, are completely transformed. Only the small portion reserved as seed will give birth to new grain next year. Even then, it will be cut down in turn, in the repeating cycle that closes the circle of the song and of the Wheel of the Year.

Now, I don’t focus on this song to imply that everyone ought to drink alcohol; although alcoholic drinks may have been healthier than plain water in the past, today that is (thankfully) no longer the case for most people in the developed world. And although beer, sometimes called “liquid bread,” may once have been an important source of calories, grain-based foods are seldom in short supply these days.

The important point is that the song ends with examples of people doing work together and celebrating as they share “little Sir John in the nut brown bowl,” or as Heather Alexander puts it, “raise up their horns.” This beer is more than a health measure, a source of calories, or an intoxicant. Its importance comes from its place in shared celebration. This sharing in the harvest is more than just a source of sustenance. It symbolizes the way we also need hilarity and opportunities to socialize, to join with other people in feast and festival.

From start to finish, the song subtly reminds us that we need each other. It’s not just one man fighting against John Barleycorn; it’s three men who plow him, and then all the different people involved in the processing of the grain. And at the end, when the singer or poet addresses the audience directly, it is an acknowledgment that we are all human together. Just as these festivals weren’t instances of individual and private devotion, none of the harvest tasks could be done by one individual alone. The cooperation of the entire community was necessary to have enough to eat, let alone extra to brew into celebratory beer!

We’ll see these themes of work, life, and rebirth played out over the next few Sabbats, culminating in Samhain and Yule, but this is the start of that process, and a clear sign that the Wheel is turning to such matters as the harvest and the very heart of some of the most human Mysteries of all. As we go into them, it is important to note that what matters is not that John Barleycorn is resurrected in some perfected, idealized, changeless form that will exist forever. What we find is rebirth, like the rebirth of John Barleycorn, the irrepressible spirit of life that continues to renew itself in myriad forms and through myriad generations.

That is what I worship about the vegetation god, and it is the starting point that helps carry us through the darkening part of the year. No matter what happens in those many deaths and rebirths, we remain children of Earth, connected to the cycle, and always alive in the sense that something carries on – although it may be greatly changed in form.

The deepest meaning of the song, to me, is that when John Barleycorn rises again, his spirit rises within each of us. When we eat bread and whether we drink beer, or tea, or juice, we are partaking of that spirit of irrepressible life, which flows into each of us to make our own lives possible. It is the very interconnections in which we live our lives, both in relationships with others and in relationship with the world around us, from which we draw sustenance and to which we will return. On this Sabbat, we come together in celebration to acknowledge that cycle and to reaffirm our role in the shared work and shared rewards of the harvest.

—–

[1] ^ This video has a good performance of the song with reasonable sound quality; you may want to listen while you read.

An Ulster variant speaks from the point of view of the barley itself in some verses, a good reminder that at times we are the harvester, and at times we are the harvest itself.

This Morris dance to the song has additional Pagan symbolism. The character in the center wearing mixed colors is Barleycorn and the four around the edges are the Elements. Yellow, in the East, is Air, red in the South is Fire, blue in the West is Water, and the brown-green in the North is Earth. (The video is taken from the south side of the circle, facing north.) At the beginning, the central character clacks sticks with each Element, invoking its power, and they all interweave in the dance, finishing together, centering on Barleycorn, to show the way all living things (and all things, really) partake of all four Elements.

Versions of the lyrics may be found here and here for the Heather Alexander ones.

Burns’ version and a comparison to a conflated version of the usual song lyrics is at this site.

[2] ^ Note that throughout this article and the tales of John Barleycorn, “corn” means grain in general, not specifically maize as it does in the US.

[3] ^ The god and festival are respectively spelled Lu (with accent) and Lunasa (which means the month of August) in modern Irish, and pronounced “loo” and “LOO-na-sah.” The tales of Lugh are many and complex.

[4] ^ This was also a marriage contracted by agreement between the couple themselves, rather than their families, with or without a specified length attached, and without the need for clergy. This type of marriage has a long and contested history in Europe. Contemporary Pagans have adopted the term for nearly any relationship commitment ceremony.

[5] ^  King, Laurie R. The God of the Hive. New York: Bantam, 2010, p 48.

Litha – Destruction Averted

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

Litha, the summer solstice, is one of the Sabbats that can be a challenge to celebrate. Yule, the winter solstice, is usually easy to celebrate, because northern and western European culture is inclined to fear winter. Yule, when we begin to see the first evidence that winter will not last forever, makes it easy to celebrate: “We’re not going to freeze to death!” is definitely good news.

By comparison, summer is usually regarded as pleasant and positive. Stereotypically, kids love being out of school, people love spending time with their families, vacations are always fun, and all of that makes summer the time for recreation and enjoyment.

Of course, this can make it easy enough to celebrate Litha. If summer is such a good time, then not much more excuse is needed. [1]

But Litha reminds us that summer will end, so it can also feel like a letdown. The contrast is especially jarring for those who love summer but hold to the current astronomical definitions of the seasons, which use Litha to mark the beginning of summer: Yay, summer’s here! Now the days get….shorter? Huh?

This is one of several reasons that I use a different definition of the seasons. The way the eight Sabbats fit together, there are four derived from old Celtic fire festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh) and four from astronomical events (Yule, Ostara, Litha, Mabon). Historians have correctly pointed out that no Indo-European culture seems to have celebrated all eight; in particular, Mabon, the autumnal equinox, has relatively few roots in pre-Christian European culture. Yule and Ostara derive from Germanic roots, and the Germanic tribes and Celts spent more time bashing each other than sitting down and having respectful multi-cultural dialogue about how to celebrate joint festivals. [2]

But when Gerald Gardner was “improving” the material from the coven that initiated him, he added in the astronomical events, and in a fit of symmetry included even the less-celebrated ones. [3] Mostly, the idea of having a reason to party every six weeks or so is a pretty good one, so I can’t complain too much, and it gives us lots of leeway to adapt the celebration of the Sabbats to a wide range of four-season climates. As a result, there’s no one coherent mythical cycle that incorporates all eight Sabbats that has come down to us, so we find and make our own.

Anyway, astronomers have decided that it’s better to use astronomical events to define the seasons, so they mark each season as starting with its definitive event, which is utterly predictable and convenient for them but weird for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who think that when it’s freezing and snowing in November, winter’s probably here already. Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense to say summer has started at the exact moment when the sun starts to spend less and less time in the sky every day.

Instead, I follow the older Celtic idea of the seasons that says the four fire festivals, which lie (pretty) neatly in between the four astronomical events, are the days when the seasons change. So for me, summer started at Beltane, Litha is its midpoint, and it will end at Lughnasadh, at the start of August. This means summer is the period when the sun is highest in the sky, both immediately before and immediately after the solstice. Just like “day” doesn’t start at noon and “night” doesn’t start at midnight, each season has its waxing and its waning.

Even understanding Litha as Midsummer means acknowledging that it marks the turning point and the year is inevitably turning towards winter once again. Wicca’s roots in Northern European culture include the implicit preference for summer and fear of winter. The term most Wiccans use for the afterlife, or place of rest and peace between reincarnations, is the “Summerland.” [4] If “heaven” is like summer, that makes a pretty clear statement that summer is much to be desired and while we might enjoy some parts of winter, it is mostly to be endured.

As we are all learning, though, more heat is not always a good thing. Global warming isn’t just bringing higher temperatures: the increased energy in the atmosphere is changing climate patterns and making weather events of all types – from frost to drought – more intense. And when it does bring higher temperatures and longer summers, it reminds us that we can no more live in the midst of constant scorching heat than we can in the midst of perpetual deep freeze.

On the other hand, constant, temperate stability isn’t necessarily the best thing, either. Even if the extremes are no place for us to live for long, perpetual balance isn’t automatically better. The examples of nature show us that we need the heat, and we need the cold, and we need the alternation between the two, just as we need day and night, not perpetual twilight. The flow, the change, the give and take between seasons and influences is an integral part of the dynamic, adaptive kind of balance in which living things find their active stability.

This helps us understand why Litha is a time to celebrate, not to mourn: we know that the waning year it ushers in is more that just a necessary but annoying interlude. But that intellectual knowledge doesn’t easily translate into the language of emotion and symbology, into the stories of myth, so let me put it this way: Litha is a time when we see destruction averted.

In many cultures, myths of creation and destruction are paired or linked. Some myths paint destruction and even death as not just the counterpart but the predecessor and catalyst for creation, such as the Babylonian myth of Marduk making the world from Tiamat’s body, or the Norse myth of the world being made of the body of the frost giant Ymir.

Other stories cast destruction as a consequence of actions that the created beings take: one Egyptian myth tells how Sehkmet was created by Ra to wreak destruction on the world and kill the humans who conspired against him, and the story of the Flood in Genesis is explicitly linked to the sinfulness of humanity.

Of course, these myths are never purely about destruction: Sehkmet was stopped; the Flood gave way, and Yahweh promised never to try that again, even hanging the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his relinquishing rain as a weapon. But in the primarily linear conception of time that dominates most Western culture, these myths are mostly before-and-after stories. Even the Biblical flood, which can be seen as ending in a restoration of Creation, is a dividing point, one that is explicitly promised not to come again.

In Wicca’s focus on cyclical time, there is no single creation myth. The idea of rebirth at Yule serves a similar purpose, with the allegorical connection of the Sun and the vegetation god making the winter solstice a myth of re-creation every year. This idea of constantly dynamic life-cycles occurs on many scales simultaneously, too, from the rising and setting of the sun to the phases of the moon, to the turning of the year, to the lifespan of a person, and even to geological time.

Just as there is no single creation myth but an ongoing story, there is no single myth of the world being spared a disaster. Instead, the twin forces of creation and destruction are seen as parts of an ongoing cycle, feeding into each other. We face destruction from both extreme heat and extreme cold (and other forces, if they get out of balance), and Litha and Yule are both celebrations of destruction averted and the ongoing re-creation of the world.

As MadGastronomer’s article on the Eleusinian Mysteries pointed out, Southern European cultures, where great heat made summer the barren period, told their stories of destruction averted around summer, and Persephone was not the maiden of the springtime but the advent of the autumn planting, the return to the growing season that would get the Greeks through the next summer’s drought.

That sense of the necessary interplay – the way that the barren period is not just the counterpart to, but inextricably linked with the fruitfulness – is what we ought to try to express and celebrate at Litha.

Raj expressed how a similar cyclical view is at the heart of Hinduism: “The Hindu Supreme Trinity consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the More Complicated Than That. Shiva is often called The Destroyer, but he is not an evil being seeking the destruction of the world for his own gain. He is, after all, part of the Supreme Trinity. His role is to transform that which is into something new. In doing so, he does indeed destroy, but the destruction he wreaks is destruction for the sake of new creation.

“What this means is that in the Hindu worldview, as in the Wiccan, destruction is an integral part of the process of creation. Acknowledging the role of destruction in the reality we inhabit isn’t always a pleasant thing to do, and we are certainly not obligated to celebrate destruction whenever and wherever it occurs. We can, however, remember that a lot of the destruction in nature results in creation, so that ultimately, while destruction is ongoing, utter destruction is averted because creation, growth, and renewal are also ongoing.” [5]

While it heralds the sun’s waning, Litha is not about light or dark winning victories over each other, even temporarily, or about one end of the polarity between ice and fire being the “good” one; it’s about the constant interplay in the dance that is the turning of the Wheel of the Year. That cooperation and interaction are the real story of destruction averted, and not just averted, but transformed into the ongoing process of re-creation. Now that’s something to celebrate.

——

[1] ^ In US culture, Memorial Day has mostly become a similar celebration of summer, although ten years of war have created quite a few families with someone to memorialize and plenty of additional performances of often-empty patriotism.

[2] ^ Imagine the “barbarian” opponents of the Romans in Gladiator and the Celts from Braveheart trying to spend time together. The result would either be massive carnage or an all-night drinking bout that would end in…massive carnage.

[3] ^ I haven’t written much about Gardner. That’s on purpose. He’s considered the “founder” of modern Wicca. He said he was initiated by a millenia-old survival of prehistoric witchcraft; that may have happened, but he probably wrote a lot of the rituals himself, and is apparently the originator of many recognizeably Wiccan practices.

He had many personal foibles and some seriously objectionable beliefs and practices (most notably sexism and Orientalism). Personally, I think getting rid of some of that dross he mixed in is one of the signs of progress in Wicca in recent decades, but that’s just me. Wicca has changed and diversified tremendously since Gardner, so don’t judge all of Wicca or all Wiccans on the basis of Gardner.

[4] ^ Adopted from Spiritualism. Wiccan beliefs on what happens after death are complex, highly individual, and not necessarily coherent, but it is common parlance to speak of someone “going to the Summerland” or “being in the Summerland” after death. Wiccans who think about reincarnation may describe the Summerland as a place of rest and joy between incarnations.

[5] ^ I would like to thank Raj for his excellent contribution here and even more for his tremendous help in discussing the ideas behind this article with me. Our conversations and his commentary on Hinduism made it possible to develop these ideas fully, and to expand the scope of the inter-religious aspect beyond solely Western ideas and practices. I am deeply indebted to him for his cooperation and look forward to collaborating with him again.

Happy Mabon! The Myth of Progress and a book review

Happy autumn equinox to everyone!

The Myth of Progress is my article about Mabon at the Slacktiverse:

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?

And the latest issue of Eternal Haunted Summer includes my review of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan:

For readers who want to spend a lot of time inside the head of a stereotypical twelve-year-old boy, these books will be a fun romp. The stories might inspire kids to go on and read the original myths, and they are fine as light entertainment, but they have plenty of problems, too. If I gave these books to children, I would also have some very serious conversations with them about some of the subtler messages conveyed, and I wouldn’t use these books as a first introduction to the Olympic pantheon.

Contemporary Deities: Eris and Weasel Wicca

I’m going to feature some pieces and guest posts further exploring contemporary deities. If you’ve got one to suggest, please write to me at literatahurley at gmail.

One of my favorite examples of a ha-ha-only-serious approach to religion is Weasel Wicca, self-described as “a toon trad.” While this is not just about a single contemporary deity, I think it is a great instance of the contemporary understanding of Eris (or Discordia, goddess of chaos) that has emerged in the last half-century. There are also Discordianism and the whole meta-schema of Chaos Magic, but those are both too big for me to tackle here, so I’ll stick to Weasel Wicca for now.

On the other hand, the description of Weasel Wicca does mention Galanthus, saying she was turned into a weasel for lying to Juno. I didn’t find any examples of this myth on a quick search, so maybe a reader can enlighten me: was this an old myth that is seldom mentioned, or is it a new myth? Either way, Galanthus might count as a contemporary deity.

The most interesting thing about Weasel Wicca, though, is that it is in fact a well-thought-out approach to Wicca; it has a myth of its own and a thoroughly adapted ritual, with the major Wiccan components easily recognizable but also uniquely reinterpreted: invoke East by squeezing the squeaky toy, invoke South by hiding the matches, and so on.

Weasel Wicca also perfectly captures the attitude of every person I’ve ever met who lived with a ferret. The trad is designed for them, and as such I think it’s a great example of how we adapt and invent myths and rituals to suit our times and circumstances.

In that spirit, grab some holy Fhood and Bhooze, or not, and with the acceptance that “reality can always use a little bending,” as Weasel Wicca puts it, let’s talk about contemporary deities.

The Pride of Heaven

(Please note: This is an example of modern myth-making, which I based in part on the feline pantheon used in the novel The Book of Night With Moon. Author Diane Duane created those characters and owns them; this is written as my own exploration of the possibilities of the genre and in homage to Duane’s excellent world-building and myth-making.)

At first there were Queen Iau and her mate, the tom Urrua. They loved each other, and out of that love came life. The first litter of that life was four: First was the Lady of the East, the Maiden, named Miu, who watches over the Earth and the Spring, and she is silver tabby with green eyes. Second was the Lady of the South, Aaurh the Mighty, who is the Fire of Summer and the Flame of the South, and she is  red with bright golden eyes. Third came the Lady of the West, H’rauf the Silent, who speaks wisdom and watches over the flow of Water in its sound and in its silence and the coming of Autumn, and she is blue, all over, with eyes of a deep green. Last came the Young Tom, the spirit of Winter, who watches over the Air and the North, who was later called the Changer, and he is pure white, with one blue eye and one yellow eye.

These Four went out and made the worlds. They shared the tasks of making the worlds and the life that went into them. They watched over the seasons in turn, and all that is in the worlds. Then the Queen and the Old Tom took form in the worlds as the Moon and the Sun; they alternated watching over the worlds, by night and by day throughout all the seasons. So the Sun is called the Old Tom’s eye, the eye of the golden tiger-cat, while the Moon is called the Queen’s eye, the eye of the lilac-pointed Siamese who is the Mother of all.

Now the Young Tom looked at what he brought to the worlds, and thought that his were the least important of all the gifts. He looked at the love between the Old Tom and the Queen, and between his sisters, and he felt least-loved. In time he grew to hate the love between the Old Tom and the Queen, and he turned his eyes, his mismatched eyes, away from that love, and eventually he closed his eyes to that love entirely.

In looking for something other than love, he found hate; in looking away from life, he found death that comes out of balance. He invented something new, and brought it into the worlds: he brought death that comes out of balance, untimely, or because of hate, and he brought hate, the negation of love and life that desires destruction of another.

He brought these new things to the worlds, and wrought much grief and destruction through them. He made the darkness and the night times of fear, times of doubt, and he made the winter a time when it seemed that the whole world was wrapped in death. His sisters mourned and wept over the results, and they rose up and raged against the Young Tom and his creations.

They fought with him, and they sought to inflict his own inventions upon him: they hated him and sought to kill him. They threw him down, and he rose up; they threw him down again and again, and he rose up every time. His ears grew scarred and ragged, and yet he would not die a final death. They defeated him seven times, and their rage grew until they called on the Old Tom for his assistance. Neither they nor the Old Tom would ask the Queen to raise her paw against her own kit, but the Old Tom fought.

The Lady of the South and the Old Tom joined together to warm the world, to drive back the cold and the darkness. They succeeded in killing the Young Tom again, but they could not remove his touch and his creations from the world. They could not warm the world too much, for the sake of the life that was on it, and they could not eliminate the Young Tom for ever, and they knew that he would rise again.

Then the Young Tom thought that he would attack the Queen. He rose up and went to the Queen, and he declared his intent to her, to attack her, and to destroy the love that he felt had ignored him. She did not shy from him. Then he was curious, because she did not turn from him, and she did not lift her paw against him, and so he asked why she acted as she did.

She answered, “I love you,” but he did not understand. He did not believe her. He had dealt in falsehoods, and now expected them of others, little thinking that the Mother of All could no more lie than she could cease to exist. They strove in mind against each other, and finally she won.

Then she knew that the other Powers That Be had used the wrong approach against the Young Tom, trying to use his own creation against him. She used a different tool against him: she used the honest vision that can only come from one who loves. She looked full into his mismatched eyes, and she made him see with his own eyes again. He saw what he had brought into the worlds, and the pain that his contributions had caused, to her and to others.

And he saw, too, that she loved him; not as he had been, nor as he should have been or could have been, but as he was. He could not bear the burden of the fullness of that sight as it filled him. He lay at her feet and grieved, as his sisters had grieved, for the wrongs that he had done, and the imbalance he had caused. He wanted to make reparation, but he did not know what would be sufficient.

Then the Queen did lift her paw: she cuffed him across the ears so hard that he saw stars, but he did not draw back from her. The Queen leaned down and bit him on the back of the neck, and he purred his assent. The Young Tom wanted to give himself, the only thing he had left, to repair what he had done. He breathed out, and closed his eyes, and willed that this death would be the last and greatest, and that with this he would be able to take his creation into himself and out of the worlds. He waited for the bite that would break his neck, but it did not come.

The bite did not come. Instead, he felt himself lifted tenderly by the scruff and carried like a kitten. He did not know how long she carried him, but he felt himself grow cold and wet, as if she carried him through a river. When she put him down, he was wet all over, but she was dry. When he looked around, with his mismatched eyes, he saw his sisters, and the Old Tom.

He did not know what to say to them, but the Queen said, “It is good,” and the Old Tom curled up around his wet body, and the Young Tom felt the Old Tom’s heat warming him. His sisters sat around them and greeted him joyfully. The Queen lay down on his other side and began to wash his ears like a kitten’s, and with her licks, he felt his ragged ears become whole again. She said, “It is good. You are good. Let this ninth life be a true life, now that you have seen truly.”

He looked into her eyes, and he saw there both the darkness and the light, and it reminded him of what was called Her Eye in the worlds, which grows dark and light by turns. “Yes,” she said, “You came from me, and there is darkness in me, for all that is, is in me. But there is more than that; all the death you have brought has returned lives to me that have been made new. They live now with me, where they are ever in the light and warmth of the Old Tom. I have resolved them into balance within myself, and your choice will enact that same healing within the worlds. You have chosen anew. You have returned to us, and in this is the healing of all hurts.

“I have laid on you a heavier burden than you thought: you will not die and remove hate and death forever, but rather you will live, and use that life to make all anew, especially what is affected by hate and death. Now will night be a time for rest and growth, and winter a time of preparation for the spring. And death itself will be brought into balance: not a horror, but a transition; not an ending, but a change necessary to preserve the balance of the worlds. You will work in the worlds again, making life and love with your sisters, and the worlds themselves will rise up and help you. And when the balance has shifted, all will be brought into the Ninth Life, the life higher up and further in. And all is well.”

Objective fear, Part II

In Part I, I talked about how a conservative Objectivist mindset transforms the existence of those in need into a perceived threat. The catalyst for this weird transformation of perception is fear, the fear which is the touchstone and the key element of the mindset I’m trying to describe. This fear became more clear to me recently because of a conversation where someone influenced by this mindset felt safe enough to reveal the way a true, deep fear of not being able to provide for his family’s needs in the future constrained his desire to give to charity. This fear is entirely reasonable for someone who realizes that social policy based on the Just World fallacy, combined with the very real risk of bad things happening no matter how hard one tries to be good, means that just being good isn’t enough: one has to conserve every advantage one gets, hoarding the good things that happen, because the destruction of social justice means that one is right to fear for the future. This approach to the world encourages, even forces, otherwise charitable people not to give. If I am truly afraid of living on catfood in retirement, because I know that social justice is lacking, then I have even less reason to donate now. The system becomes self-perpetuating.

Something similar happens in morality when a religion relies on the threat of punishment as the primary motivation for doing good. This is why a type of Christianity based on a fear of hell is a lousy kind of Christianity and ultimately counters its own precepts.

Objectivists like to position themselves in the posture of Nietzsche, as defenders of “real” morality against the thievery and “mooching” that they think Christianity pushes. (Aside: they would make the same criticism of any morality or system of ethics that encourages feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, etc, but I’m going to stick to Christianity here because it’s the dominant one they rail against.) The Objectivist caricature of Christianity is that Christians think that people in need want to punish those who are well-off. The Objectivist viewpoint sees itself in opposition to a perverted Christianity where Jesus wouldn’t just want the homeless to be housed, he would insist that if those with houses don’t house the homeless, the houses should all be burned down to punish the evil people who have houses to begin with. This is not what Christianity teaches, but some versions of Christianity come perilously close by relying on the fear of hell to motivate positive action.

I was recently involved in a conversation about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. They both die, and Lazarus finds himself in comfort with Abraham, but the rich man who had ignored Lazarus while alive finds himself in torment. When the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks Abraham to send someone back from the dead to tell his rich brothers that they ought to look after the poor, Abraham refuses, says that even if someone came back from the dead to tell them so, the rich wouldn’t want to give to the poor.

Some people in the conversation I was in insisted that the point of this parable was that if people sin (by not providing for the poor), they will be punished in hell in the afterlife. They said that if there wasn’t any punishment, then the whole parable loses its impact: that without the threat of torment, there is no story. This is ridiculous, both based on the story, and based on the real-world examples of what fear actually motivates. Notice how in their telling, the parts that I italicized become a mere side-note. Fear of hell only creates fear of hell; it doesn’t drive people to go find out what’s in that side note and put it into action.

When I was Christian, I found it crucial to understand that this parable was being told by Jesus, who would soon die and return from the dead. This is a story that’s not meant to be taken on its own. It only makes sense after the fact, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Christianity, Jesus is the man returned from the dead, just like the rich man suggests in the story. Jesus is saying, “I know you won’t listen to me, and in fact, I’ll tell you a story about how you won’t listen to me, because what I’m telling you is that taking care of the poor is the right thing to do. You already know that, and you don’t want to hear it.” That was how I understood it, and that makes the whole story a marvelous joke, a valid ethical message regardless of whether you believe in Jesus as the savior, and something that is not at all about hell or even about the afterlife. If Jesus wanted people to believe or to act morally because of fear of hell, he would have shown them hell. He didn’t: according to Christians, what Jesus did show was his own resurrection. This isn’t a story about what happens after you live. It’s a story about how to live, which is why Jesus came back to life.

But some Christians insist on taking the Just World fallacy too seriously, and pervert the religion into a story about how God will make the Just World fallacy true in the end. Instead of holding up the threat of being left out in the cold, being hungry and naked and poor, they hold up the threat of eternal fiery torment. Why stop at the little threat when you can go all the way? If a small threat drives people to do a few good things, this thinking goes, a bigger threat will drive even more good things! But when we look at the result of the fear instilled by hard-core Objectivism, we realize that fear is a lousy motivator. It doesn’t motivate people to do good things; it motivates exactly the opposite, and in the process, it creates a response of defensive anger that becomes self-hate and eventually hatred of others. When the existence of those in need triggers that fear, defensive anger lashes out at the trigger, not at the source of the fear.

Fear isn’t the answer. Love is. Fear is about death. Love is about life. Threats tell us about how we will die and introduce creeping rot into every aspect of existence. Love creates life, love teaches us how to live, and love gives us the courage to go out and do it.

 

Coda: As I’ve said, I am no longer Christian, and I do not want to dictate to Christians how to be Christian. But I think that any morality, secular or religious, based ultimately on a threat of punishment has a similarly destructive outcome, and this example was a good illustration. The idea that humans are depraved and deserve to go to hell is one of the reasons I’m not Christian any more. I think that a form of Wicca that uses the Rule of Three or the idea of karma as a similar threat is equally wrong and bad. Life is about love, and love about life.